History Vs. Podcast Episode 2: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Time

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s a chilly day in February 1877, and Theodore Roosevelt, a freshman at Harvard, is busy. Very, very busy. He wakes up at 7:30 and breakfasts on “hot biscuits, toast, chops or beef steak, and buckwheat cakes.”

After breakfast, he reviews notes from his classes—he’s taking classical literature; composition and translation in Greek, Latin, and German; trigonometry and geometry; physics; and chemistry.

At 10 a.m. he eagerly digs into his mail, reviewing the day’s letters, perhaps dashing off a few rapid-fire replies.

From 11 a.m. to noon he attends Latin recitation, after which he heads to the gym to train for an upcoming boxing match in the lightweight division at Harvard.

Next, lunch, where there is a “free fight” that sends a fellow student under the table, prompting threats of expulsion from a Mrs. Morgan.

After lunch, there is more studying and more recitation until late into the afternoon.

In the evening he dines with a Mr. and Mrs. Tudor, writing later that he had “a very pleasant home-like time.”

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR versus Time.

Roosevelt once declared, “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” and it’s true—it’s hard to think of another person who accomplished as much as TR did, even though he was working with 24 hours in the day, just like the rest of us.

Cal Newport: This is the crazy thing. The busiest job you can imagine is being the president of the United States, and even in that job, he felt like he had too much downtime.

That’s Cal Newport, author of the books Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He first read about TR’s feats of productivity in historian Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was home-schooled for most of his life, because he was too weak to go to regular school, but he thrived under the strict schedule set by the Dresden family he lived with in Germany for five months in 1873.

It’s perhaps this time in Germany that formed TR’s lifelong obsession with a schedule. Each day, he would get up at 6:30, eat breakfast until 7:30, then study until 12:30. Then he’d have lunch, study until 3, and enjoy free time until tea at 7. After that, it was studying until 10, then bed. He wrote to his father, Thee, “It is harder than I have ever studied before in my life, but I like it for I really feel that I am making considerable progress.”

When he had to take some time off after an asthma attack, he insisted that his tutors work him extra hard to make up what he had missed. When he was 15, the Roosevelts returned to the States, and TR took up with another tutor, this time with an ambitious goal: Get into Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant passing the entrance exams in the summer of ‘75.

Roosevelt had a year and a half to cram, and he studied six to eight hours every day. His tutor, Arthur Cutler, later wrote, “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was.”

According to author David McCullough, in that time Roosevelt accomplished what normally took three years, and he passed his preliminary Harvard entrance exams in July 1875.

TR kept just as busy while he was at Harvard, where he lived in a boarding house off campus because the dorms were considered not ideal for his asthma.

He joined a number of clubs: He wrote in his diary that he was “Librarian of the Porcellian, Secretary of the Pudding, Treasurer of the O.K., Vice President of the Natural History Soc., President of the A.D.Q. [and] Editor of the Advocate." He was also a member of the Glee Club, although he didn’t sing. He taught Sunday School. He took dance class but avoided going to the theater, because “I don’t care for it, and it might hurt my eyes.”

He read incessantly, at a rate of two to three pages a minute. He boxed and wrestled and hiked. He courted the ladies and had an active social life. He studied as much as 36 hours a week. And in between that, he found time to write two works on ornithology and begin a book that would later be placed on every Navy ship, The Naval War of 1812. In the words of one classmate, TR was “forever at it.”

Cal: This is someone who was taking issues of productivity to new levels.

According to Morris, TR got through such huge amounts of work due to “iron self-discipline” that had become a habit. He spent just a quarter of the day at his desk, but he concentrated so hard, and read so rapidly, that he could take more time off than most other students. But even his time off was not that restful. It was packed with activity.

Newport was so inspired by Morris’s description of TR’s productivity that he featured Roosevelt in Deep Work.

Cal: There's really two factors to his productivity. One is this idea which I've written about more recently, including in Digital Minimalism, which is his belief that action is better than inaction. And that’s an interesting idea. A lot of people, especially today in a world of easy distraction, think what they really need is just time when they have nothing to do, they can just sit there and watch Netflix while swiping on their phone and just be bathed in passive distraction. They need that to recharge. They're exhausted. But TR is from this other school of thought, which says you're almost always better off, from a perspective of recharging your satisfaction, doing things, quality things, hard things all the time. You could be doing hard things or sleep, and that's it.

Throughout late 19th-century, early 20th-century thinkers, this is a common idea, that action all the time that's quality leaves you better off than trying to alternate between sort of pure passive rest and action. So I like that. But the other element is that he really believed in this formula that I've been writing about for years, which is what you produce is a function of the time you spend times your intensity of focus. And so TR's hack was "Let me take the intensity of focus piece of that equation and really pump it up as high as possible. If I can do that, then I can really minimize the time spent piece and get a lot of things accomplished."

We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.

 

Morris wrote that Roosevelt “plotted every day with the methodism of a Wesleyan minister,” and there’s no better example of that than a schedule of one of his days from the campaign trail in 1900. While incumbent presidential candidate William McKinley largely stayed away from the campaign trail, vice presidential candidate Roosevelt was crisscrossing the country.

The schedule itself is a testament to his boundless energy, but so are the statistics of that campaign season: According to Morris, Roosevelt, by November, had made “673 speeches in 567 towns in 24 states; he had traveled 21,209 miles and spoken an average of 20,000 words a day to 3 million people.”

One day on the trail, his schedule went like this:

  • 7:00 a.m. Breakfast
  • 7:30 a.m. A speech
  • 8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work
  • 9:00 a.m. A speech
  • 10:00 a.m. Dictating letters
  • 11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines
  • 11:30 a.m. A speech
  • 12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work
  • 12:30 p.m. A speech
  • 1:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. A speech
  • 2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott
  • 3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams
  • 3:45 p.m. A speech
  • 4:00 p.m. Meeting the press
  • 4:30 p.m. Reading
  • 5:00 p.m. A speech
  • 6:00 p.m. Reading
  • 7:00 p.m. Supper
  • 8-10 p.m. Speaking
  • 11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his [train] car
  • 12:00 a.m. To bed

It’s enough to make you want to take a nap.

Erin: He had a long history of basically having these really regimented days. Is that something that you think contributed to his ability to get a lot done?

Cal: I think it absolutely did. A lot of people, especially today, when they're thinking about their personal productivity, they think in terms of tasks. You know, what do I want to get done today? Where's my to-do list? Maybe I'm going to do the most-important-task-of-the-day system, where I choose one thing I really want to get done.

But something I consistently discover is that high achievers are often echoing the Roosevelt approach, which is "I want to actually allocate my attention," which means when you look at a particular day, you're not making a task list; you're blocking off your hours. What am I doing during this half hour? What am I doing during these three hours? You have so much attention to give in a day; you're trying to find the optimal allocation.

They also think about this on higher scales. What am I doing this week? Oh, Wednesday is the day that I'm going to have a lot of downtime in the morning, so that's when I'm going to really get after this project.

And so that idea of thinking about "I have, whatever it is—12 hours of attention to allocate in a day, some of those hours are going to be higher intensity than others, depending on where they fall; how do I get the biggest return on that attention?" That's an incredibly powerful productivity hack. It's one that I've been preaching, and I was influenced in that, in particular, by that approach of TR.

We know he was even doing that with his leisure, which I find interesting. When he's at Oyster Bay, when he's at his house on the Long Island Sound, he had pretty structured approaches to: I'm going to go rowing. I'm going to row across the sound, then we're going to play these games with the cousins, then we're going to read or whatever. Even at his leisure, he was allocating his attention as well.

Erin: So how does TR compare to other highly productive or successful people in history?

Cal: So he has that, as we talked about before, that manic energy, that need to always be doing things, that distrust of passive relaxation. That's pretty common. I mean, you see that a lot, let's say, in the business world in high achievers. That's certainly a definitive trait of, let's say, like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, for example. These are people who had this restless drive. "I’ve got do something. I’ve got to do something else. I don't trust passive time. I don't trust recharging," I mean, often to the detriment of their health.

That type of thing is common. Once you get to a certain level of productivity, like you're running ... two companies at the same time, or you're running the country at the same time that you're writing books. That's how they get there. You can't get there without being highly intentional about your time.

Roosevelt’s level of activity didn’t let up when he was in the White House. This might be best exemplified by a project created by archivist Chloe Elder, who, in the summer of 2017, was between masters degrees and doing a remote internship at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Every day, she’d clock in and go through material piece by piece adding metadata. A lot of the documents Elder was cataloging were letters written during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Chloe: There's something about being plopped down right in the middle of someone's correspondence. It's immediate. It's often very intimate.

As she was working, Elder began to notice a pattern.

Chloe: I kept seeing this one sort of standard reply from TR's secretary. And it would be something along the lines of, "Thank you very much for your letter, or your invitation, but President Roosevelt is far too busy to respond personally, or far too busy to attend the event, or make a speech, or read your story that you've submitted to him." And I just wanted to see, well how busy was he?

So she decided to create a calendar—something that would allow her to visualize just what a week in the life of President Roosevelt looked like. She began searching through the digitized archives at the Center, as well as his desk diaries, which he kept every day. Eventually, she zeroed in on a week where Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait by John Singer Sargent.

Chloe: TR would only pose for half an hour a day, after lunch, and it was apparently very hard to get him to sit still and not be rushing off somewhere else.

Erin: Classic TR.

After gathering all of the data and crunching the numbers, a picture began to emerge, and that picture was action-packed. According to the calendar Elder created, sometimes TR would hold up to eight meetings in an hour, meaning that if they were all equal in length, they would have been a mere 7.5 minutes each.

But even for TR, life doesn’t neatly fit into such tidy chunks.

Chloe: Some of the meetings do look like they're really quick, it says to pay respects. So that sounds like a brief sort of introduction. But then there are other meetings, and you could maybe guess what was going on if you also look at what was happening politically at the time, or looking at his letters. But a lot of it is still a bit of a mystery.

And on top of his busy schedule, he was sending letter after letter after letter.

Chloe: How many letters did he write that week? I'd have to count up, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 ... I mean, a lot of letters that week. I saw he regularly wrote more letters than he received on any given day, really. In his lifetime he wrote over 150,000 letters.

Erin: I'm not president of the United States and I struggle to return an email.

Chloe: Right?

This is probably a good place for a break. We’ll be right back.

 

In addition to his many meetings and his epic commitment to correspondence, TR was also reading around a book a day and making time to be active.

Roosevelt played tennis, though he was never photographed in his tennis whites. He boxed, and when he couldn’t do that anymore, he took up jiu-jitsu. He swam—nude—in the Potomac. And he regularly dragged diplomats to Rock Creek Park to take a brisk walk or maybe scale a cliff.

As one such diplomat later recalled of a jaunt in the park, “He … made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand. His great delight is rock climbing, which is my weak point. I disgraced myself completely, and my arms and shoulders are still stiff with dragging myself up by roots and ledges. At one place I fairly stuck, and could not get over the top till he caught me by the collar and hauled at me.… He did almost all the talking, to my great relief, for I had no breath to spare.”

After he left the White House, TR’s ability to get a lot done in very little time loomed large. His successor, William Howard Taft, bemoaned, “I would give anything in the world if I had the ability to clear away work as Roosevelt did.” Me too, Will. Me too.

Erin: I often say that TR just makes me feel really tired, because it's like, "How?”

Cal: So the key factor seems to be this internal engine that gives him such a burst of energy that he has to be doing things throughout the day, and I've never seen someone focus it more intensely than he did. I'm also in awe. I wish I had maybe, what, 30 percent of his energy. I'd probably be 200 percent more productive.

Erin: He didn't have many of the distractions that we have today. Do we think that he would be as productive if he had a smartphone, for example, or the internet?

Cal: I don't know. On the one hand, he clearly had this huge energy and a huge drive to intensely do things and to produce things, so he might've been a figure that was just completely dismissive of "I don't need passive entertainment. I don't need to sit. This is not valuable enough. I don't want to sit here tweeting. I want to write a book," right. So he might've been completely dismissive of it.

On the other hand, he was highly curious and really attracted to new information. When you're talking about the early 20th century, what could you do? You could have smart people to the White House. You could read books. They were inherently very focused activities. We might see a TR that was so entranced by all these different rabbit holes he could go down, that instead of writing the book on naval history, he would be watching YouTube videos about knot-tying or something like that.

And if that latter thing is true, then that begs the question, how many potential TRs, at least in terms of productive output, leadership, and impact, are we losing? Because that huge energy and curiosity, "I need to do things, I need to act, I need to produce things," I mean, is that being sacked by an attention economy engine that is more roaming and finely tuned than we've ever had before in history. That's the pessimistic view—[that] we've been losing potential TRs because of it.

But I don't know. I tend to think he wants to produce. He wants to think big thoughts. He wants to produce interesting things. He wants to make big changes. He probably would not be a big user of Twitter. That would be my guess.

If you, like me, are wondering where Roosevelt found the energy to get so much done, one clue might be in his coffee intake. He was said to drink up to a gallon of coffee a day, and according to his son Ted, his mug was less like a regular coffee mug and “more in the nature of a bathtub.” He put up to seven lumps of sugar in each cup, too.

But according to Elder, that might not be Roosevelt’s ultimate hack.

Erin: So what do you think the rest of us can learn about how to be productive from TR's approach to his schedule?

Chloe: Well I wouldn't recommend the gallon of coffee a day. But I think he found what worked for him as far as being very productive all the time. And he seemed to thrive in that sort of environment. TR wasn't used to sitting still for more than half hour, and his MO was just to keep going and keep moving. And he was steadfast in that way of doing things, and I think that really worked for him. Just to find out what works best and run with it.

And when Newport thinks about how we can all be a little more like TR, he thinks of a quote from an interview Steve Martin did with Charlie Rose.

Cal: Charlie Rose had asked him, "What's your advice to aspiring entertainers?" And Steve Martin said, "Well, the advice I give them, which is never what they want to hear, but the advice I give them is be so good you can't be ignored. If you do that, good things will come." But TR, I think, really embodied that as well. He didn't just want to do things; he wanted to do things really well. He always wanted to be so good you couldn't ignore him. He was always driven to do things at a really high level of quality, which sounds obvious, but I think it's really different than a lot of our instincts today, especially in a world of sort of attention-economy media, as well as digital communication, where we also have this hustle culture, which is just be busy, right, do lots of things. Email lots of people. Have lots of coffees. Do a lot of things on social media. Just be kind of in the mix and crushing it and hustling and all this, and that'll somehow alchemize into some sort of success.

And I think TR represented a counterpoint to that, which is busyness by itself means nothing, hustling by itself means nothing. Things that you produce, things that you have shipped that are so good that it's hard for people to ignore, that's the foundation for interesting impact. I love the way that he embodied that. Busyness for busyness' sake was not a value. Intensity toward things that really mattered or might have a real impact was something he cared about. I think there's probably a lot to learn from that today.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.

This show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Cal Newport and Chloe Elder.

To learn more about this episode, check out mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

History Vs. Podcast Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt vs. Bigfoot

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Erin McCarthy: Hello and welcome to a very special bonus episode of History Vs., a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and today, we’re going to be exploring a tale Theodore Roosevelt wrote about in his book The Wilderness Hunter, a memoir of his time on the frontier, which was published in 1893. Many of the stories in the book are just what you’d expect from a big game hunter like TR, but there’s one unusual tale that stands out from the rest, one that Roosevelt called “a goblin story which rather impressed me.”

Here to tell us about what’s now known as The Bauman Incident is Mental Floss science editor Kat Long, who wrote a piece about the event for us.

Kat Long: A couple years ago I visited a small village on the central coast of British Columbia, where members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation have cultural stories about sasquatches, or buk’wis in the local language. They also shared with me a lot of stories about sasquatches and their personal encounters with them in their ancestral territory.

McCarthy: Is that why when I asked someone to write this story, you volunteered so quickly?

Long: Yes, it is.

McCarthy: What was the Bauman incident?

Long: The Bauman Incident supposedly occurred in the mountains of western Montana and northwestern Wyoming, which in the late 19th century was still the Montana Territory.

On one of TR’s hunting trips to the region, he met a grizzled old trapper named Bauman who told him a wild tale.

TR doesn’t mention Bauman’s first name, but it may have been Carl L. Bauman. According to a Montana Historical Society journal, this Carl L. Bauman was born in Germany in 1831. He moved west in the 1860s, and died in Montana in 1909. So that timeline and geographical detail fits with TR’s account, but we don’t have any proof that he was the one.

Bauman told TR how, as a young man, he and a friend went into the Montana forest to hunt beaver. And they set up their traps in a mountain pass that had been the scene of another trapper’s mysterious, gruesome death the year before.

So over a few days and nights, Bauman and his friend were tormented by a strange animal that destroyed their camp, and it howled with the cover of the trees, and watched them as they slept and all kinds of creepy activities. And in the morning, they found footprints indicating that the creature walked upright.

Finally, after a few days of this, they couldn’t take it anymore, and as they packed up to leave, Bauman had to walk a few miles away to gather up some beaver traps from a stream and when he returned to the campsite, he found his friend dead, with fang marks in his neck. The scariest part about it was that the beast had not devoured the flesh, but merely—and this is what TR wrote—“romped and gamboled round it in [an] uncouth, ferocious glee.”

McCarthy: What did they think was the culprit?

Long: TR writes in the beginning of the story that the culprit could have been “merely some abnormally wicked and cunning wild beast, but … no man can say.” He also suggests that Bauman thought it was “something either half human or half devil, some great goblin beast.” Bauman doesn’t tell TR what he thought it was, and TR never comes right out and says it, but he seems to imply that it was a sasquatch.

McCarthy: But he wouldn’t have called it sasquatch or Bigfoot, because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we weren’t using those words yet—sasquatch didn’t come around until the late 1920s, and Bigfoot until the late 1950s. So anyway—why do people think this incident involved a sasquatch? Was that something they believed in at that time?

Long: Tales of “hairy giants” or “wild men” of the forest were already circulating around the Pacific Northwest and indigenous peoples of the region had legends including sasquatch-like characters. So they also shared tales of seeing and interacting with the actual sasquatches with the white trappers they met, and then the white trappers and hunters picked up the tale and retold the stories.

McCarthy: What’s the differences between what’s in this account and what’s in the account of indigenous peoples’ encounters with the sasquatch?

Long: The Kitasoo say sasquatches are shy and generally stay out of people’s way, and they are definitely not known as bloodthirsty murderers. But they do, however, scream really loudly in this really high-pitched freaky sound, and they also really stink, and TR mentioned those two characteristics in his account of the Bauman Incident as well.

McCarthy: What are some of the encounters that the Kitasoo told you about with sasquatch?

Long: I remember one story that was told to me by one of the leaders in the community that they were out overnight on a beach gathering clams, because it was the time of year when the tide was out and they could dig them up out of the beach really easily. So they’d been doing this all night and they were sort of gathered around the beach. Some of the members of the group heard this crazy scream coming out of the woods. They looked over to the elder of the group and the elder wasn’t doing anything, he didn’t seem alarmed at all, so they were like “OK, we’ll just continue doing our thing,” but they kept hearing this scream just out of the woods. And it is very quiet up there, I mean, it would have been shocking. And so [they] kind of gathered closer and closer to the boat they had all come in on. The elder said “Why aren’t you out gathering clams? What’s going on?” and all of a sudden, this piercing, super loud scream just came out of the woods, and he suddenly looked incredibly shocked and started banging the anchor on the boat trying to scare whatever it was away, and everybody jumped on the boat and motored away as fast as they could.

So in that story, we see the sasquatch screaming. They didn’t see him—it really stayed out of sight—but it was kind of like, the sasquatch might have been a little curious about what they were doing and was trying to get their attention, but then they just got the hell out of there.

McCarthy: They were like “we don’t see you, and based on that noise, we don’t want to see you.”

Long: Yeah.

McCarthy: How often are they having encounters like this? I mean, are they common?

Long: A lot of people in the village have had them, but they don’t happen every day or anything like that. They may happen, to each person, maybe a few times in their life.

McCarthy: And what do they say to Western science’s belief that sasquatch isn’t real?

Long: They understand that a lot of people don’t think that they’re real, or they don’t believe them when they say they’ve seen them with their own eyes, and their response to that is “well, you know, we don’t need some Western scientist telling me whether they exist or not. I’ve seen them,” or, “Elders in our community have seen them and I believe what they say,” or, “Our stories over generations and generations all talk about them, so how can they not exist?”

McCarthy: And one thing that I thought was really interesting about your piece is that I think you went back to one of the elders, and you asked him, right, and he said, “Just because we haven’t found a skeleton or bones or anything doesn’t mean anything—I’ve never found a bear skeleton in the woods either.”

Long: Exactly.

McCarthy: Which is a pretty good point.

Long: Yeah. Yeah. It really makes you think. We know a lot about what’s out in the forest, but there’s a lot that we don’t know, and so … we’ll just kind of have to leave that where it is.

McCarthy: So TR was a pretty practical dude, and he was not really given to flights of fancy. So how did he explain what happened here?

Long: TR wrote that Bauman was of German ancestry, and must have heard “all kinds of ghost and goblin lore, so that many fearsome superstitions were latent in his mind.”

He also said that Bauman had heard tales from the Native American medicine men of “snow-walkers … spectres, and the formless evil beings that haunt the forest depths.”

TR says that Bauman “must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale.”

McCarthy: Have any scientists thought about what the animal actually was?

Long: I don’t think any real scientists have looked into this because from a scientific investigation point of view, there aren’t many specific clues to go on, and no physical evidence that could be tested for, like, sasquatch DNA or they don’t have any material to test for stable isotopes, which can show where an animal has been or what it’s eaten, or that kind of thing.

McCarthy: Besides the walking on two feet thing, it almost sounds like it could be a mountain lion—people say that a cougar screaming sounds like “a woman screaming for her life.” TR himself once said that “No man could well listen to a stranger and wilder sound.”

Long: What I was thinking is that maybe a cougar was attacking a bear that was walking upright, which would cover all the bases.

McCarthy: Yes, that was definitely it. That was definitely, definitely it. Well, I guess this is just one of those mysteries that we are never going to solve.

Thanks to Kat Long for joining us, and thanks for listening to this special bonus episode of History Vs. We’ll be back with another bonus episode in a few weeks.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

Subscribe to History Vs. Apple Podcasts here.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Epilogue - The Other Roosevelts

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

Theodore Roosevelt was many things: a writer, a rancher, a president. But above all, he was a family man. TR was exceptionally close to, and dearly loved, his family. As he wrote in his autobiography, “A household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison. It may be true that he travels farthest who travels alone; but the goal thus reached is not worth reaching.”

TR wasn’t one to continually gush about his family members, but he made it clear that they truly were the most important part of his life. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs.—a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes—we’ll be covering all the other Roosevelts that we didn’t get to talk about in detail in season 1.

Let’s start with TR’s older sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles—or, as she’s more commonly known, Bamie.

Bamie was born on January 18, 1855, and had a curvature of the spine that caused a small hump; she required years of therapy in order to walk.

According to historian Betty Boyd Caroli, Bamie was so often on the go that her family gave her yet another nickname, “Bye,” as in “Bye, Bamie!”

With her endless energy, keen mind, and outstanding work ethic, Bamie was a steadying force for her family to rally around and rely on throughout her entire life. As soon as she was old enough, she managed the Roosevelt household and was sort of a third parent to her younger siblings, Theodore, Elliot, and Corinne. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Bamie’s “maturity made her seem like one of the grown-ups when they were all young.”
That impression never really wore off for TR, and Bamie continued to advise and assist him when he was a grown-up himself. She decorated his room in the boarding house at Harvard and even had a hand in planning his first honeymoon. When TR and his first wife, Alice, spent a few days after their marriage at the Roosevelts’ rented Long Island estate, Kathleen Dalton writes that “Bamie had ordered all their meals ahead of time and arranged everything with the three servants who cared for them.”

When TR began his career in politics, Bamie lent an ear, doled out advice, and helped him make political connections. And when his brother Elliott’s maid, Katy Mann, said that Elliott had gotten her pregnant—a scandal that, if exposed, TR believed would threaten his political chances—it was Bamie who helped TR avoid a lawsuit.

Bamie married late in life, to a Navy officer named William Sheffield Cowles, and moved to Washington around the same time her brother was elected Vice President. There, her home became what TR would call “the other White House.” He visited often and consulted with Bamie on political appointments and maneuvers.

Bamie’s health declined as she aged, and she spent her final years with her husband in Connecticut, plagued by arthritis, backaches, deafness, and deteriorating eyesight. She passed away in 1931 at the age of 76, but there was one vital bit of TR’s legacy that she saw to before she died.

In 1899, Bamie sold the house where she, TR, and their other siblings had been born, and various stores and restaurants would go on to occupy the site. After he died in 1919, younger sister Corinne led the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association in raising funds to buy back the site and transform it into a memorial. Together, Bamie and Corinne had it reconstructed exactly as they remembered it, complete with family portraits, heirlooms, and original furniture or replicas.

“The Roosevelt House” opened on TR’s birthday in 1923, and the National Park Service took it over 40 years later, renaming it the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Today, the house that Bamie so skillfully ran in her youth stands as a monument not only to TR’s legacy, but Bamie’s, too.

TR’s younger sister, Corinne, was a high-spirited, mercurial woman who devoted herself to him unwaveringly. While TR looked up to Bamie as an advisor and a role model, Corinne was more of a buddy.

According to Dalton, TR sought out Corinne’s company “when he felt soulful, or needed unambivalent praise or just playfulness.”

Corinne’s education consisted of private tutoring and a stint at Miss Comstock’s School in Manhattan, much of which she attended with her neighbor, Edith Kermit Carow. Edith, of course, would later become TR’s second wife.

Corinne herself married a boisterous, wealthy Scottish-born real estate broker named Douglas Robinson, a relative of former President James Monroe. Corinne sobbed through her engagement, but she didn’t dare break it off—and the energetic, socially active couple turned out to be surprisingly well-matched. They had four children: Two served in politics, and one authored a book that talked about his childhood at Sagamore Hill. The family was not without tragedy: Their youngest son, Stewart, died at 19 years old when he accidentally fell from a window at Harvard.

Throughout her adult life, Corinne split her time between poetry, politics, and parties.

Her first poem, “The Call of Brotherhood,” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1911, and she followed it up with several poetry books. Her friend and fellow writer Edith Wharton encouraged and edited some of her work.

Corinne also hosted lavish parties at the family’s estate in West Orange, New Jersey. It was at one of these parties that Franklin Roosevelt asked a girl to dance: His distant cousin, Eleanor, who was Corinne’s niece, and would later become Franklin’s wife.

In September 1918, Corinne’s husband passed away unexpectedly of heart disease at age 63, and she lost Theodore just a few months later, in January 1919. The sudden death of her beloved brother shook Corinne to her core.

“Life would always have glamour, enchantment, inspiration and delight as long as he lived,” she said, “And now he is gone.”

From that point until her own death in 1933 from pneumonia, Corinne’s life was essentially a tribute to TR. She worked with the Roosevelt Memorial Association, penned many heartfelt poems about him, and published a memoir titled My Brother Theodore Roosevelt in 1921.

Corrine threw herself into politics, backing presidential candidates whom she felt would uphold TR’s vision for the country. In 1920, she endorsed General Leonard Wood at the Republican National Convention. She also served on President Calvin Coolidge’s advisory committee during his 1924 campaign.

TR’s son, Ted Jr., summarized his aunt’s dedication to TR in his diary: “She has talked so much … about him that I really believe that she is more or less convinced that she is he now.”

While Corinne had processed her grief over TR’s death very publicly, his second wife, Edith, did her best to bury hers for the sake of her remaining family.

“I am dead, but no one but you dearest Corinne must know that,” she wrote in March 1919, just a few months after TR’s death. “I am fighting hard to pull myself together and do for the family not only my part but also Theodore’s.”

Edith kept busy by volunteering for the Women’s National Republican Club and the Needlework Guild, and took trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. She wasn’t exactly a political activist, but she did encourage women to vote after the 19th Amendment passed, and she spoke out in support of Herbert Hoover when he ran against Franklin Roosevelt. (According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, this was partly to clarify that Roosevelt wasn’t her son, as some Americans had assumed.)

As Sylvia Jukes Morris writes in her biography of Edith, the former First Lady was “by nature reclusive and sedentary,” and “she had to fight all the harder to be socially and culturally active—but fight she did, with courage that Theodore himself would have admired.”

She frequently attended parties in Oyster Bay, and even braved Manhattan for concerts and operas. Between all her traveling, volunteering, and keeping up with friends and family, Edith guided how TR was remembered in the eyes of the public. Not only did she destroy many of their love letters, she also had a lot of say in deciding which documents got passed on to historians. It’s for this reason that some scholars—including Michael Cullinane, who we spoke to in previous episodes of this podcast—consider Edith the true gatekeeper of TR’s legacy.

She was the gatekeeper of Sagamore Hill, too. After TR died, his eldest son, Ted, had intended to take over the estate and raise his family there. Edith, however, didn’t plan on moving. She wanted Sagamore Hill to be a center for the whole family, and eventually allotted a few acres of land to Ted so he could build his own home. He did, and these days, it’s known as the Old Orchard Museum.

Edith lived at Sagamore Hill for the rest of her life, and died there on September 30, 1948, at the age of 87. She’s buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery with her husband.

Now let’s move on to the Roosevelt kids.

Edith and Theodore’s oldest son, Theodore III, or Ted Jr., technically followed his father into politics. But his path there was roundabout, and his defining legacy was mostly a military one.

After graduating from Harvard in 1909, Ted worked for a carpet company and then an investment banking firm. After World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, he planned for the inevitability of U.S. involvement by helping to organize a training program in Plattsburg(h), New York, which marked the beginning of his lifelong passion for military service.

In April 1917, the U.S. entered the war, and Ted, immediately commissioned major, was among the first soldiers sent to France. His wife, Eleanor Butler Alexander, left their children with Edith and set off for France as well, where she ran a YMCA, organized volunteers, and taught French to American soldiers.

The press lauded Ted as an adept, heroic leader—and so did his father.

“Our pride even surpasses our anxiety,” TR wrote. “I walk with my head higher because of you.”

A bullet to the knee during a 1918 battle would keep Ted away from the front lines for the rest of the war, and he soon set his sights on public service. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Ted held a number of positions, including New York Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Puerto Rico, and Governor General of the Philippines. He also spearheaded the establishment of the American Legion, ran for Governor of New York (but didn’t win), and eventually settled into a vice presidency at the publishing house Doubleday, Doran.

When the U.S. got involved in World War II, a middle-aged Ted was undeterred by his heart problems or the arthritis that forced him to walk with a cane. He enlisted, was promoted to brigadier general, and fought in Algeria and Italy. He was accompanied by his son Quentin, named for Ted’s younger brother who had died during World War I and had been buried in France.

Then came D-Day. Ted led the troops onto Utah Beach, earning a Medal of Honor for his valor. He survived, but a month after the battle, while still in France, Ted died of a heart attack. He was buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in France. In 1955, at the request of the Roosevelt family, his brother Quentin’s remains were relocated to rest there, too.

We’ll be right back.

In 1929, Ted Jr. published All in the Family, a memoir with many colorful anecdotes from the Roosevelts’ childhood. One of them really captures the spirit of his younger brother Kermit.

“When Father read to us we all interrupted him continually with questions, but Kermit was by far the worst offender,” Ted wrote. “One ‘why’ bred another so quickly in his mind that soon reading almost stopped.”

Kermit’s insatiable curiosity only strengthened as he got older, and in a way, his whole life was a quest to learn as much as he possibly could.

He accompanied his father on both the legendary African safari of 1909 and the life-threatening journey along Amazon’s River of Doubt in 1913 and ‘14. Without his father, he globe-trotted around places like Asia, the Indies, and the Galapagos Islands, exercising his penchant for picking up languages along the way. He could speak or read almost 10, including Portuguese, Swahili, Arabic, and Greek.

Kermit built an impressive resume: He authored several books and countless articles about his adventures, and he also wrote book reviews and essays about his father. He also worked at a bank in Buenos Aires and founded his own steamship company. He commanded British forces during World War I, and later helped bring about the modern U.S. Merchant Marine. He fathered four children with his wife, Belle Wyatt Willard. He was president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, what would later become the Audubon Society, and he even rubbed shoulders with Gertrude Stein and William Butler Yeats.

But, as Edmund Morris wrote in his book Colonel Roosevelt, “[Kermit’s] nomadic nature and marvelous talent for languages fought against the confinements of marriage and work. Depression steadily claimed him. He became a philanderer and insatiable drinker and, as his body thickened, developed a startling resemblance to his father.”

Kermit fought with British forces again at the beginning of World War II, but he was soon sent home because of his weak heart. He started drinking again. Thinking military service would do him good, his wife and younger brother, Archie, asked then-President Franklin Roosevelt to commission him in the American army.

He was sent to Alaska, where he helped to organize a militia, but the assignment wasn’t the steadying force his family had hoped for. In June 1943, Kermit took his own life. His mother, 81 at the time, was told that he had died of a heart attack. Kermit is buried at the Fort Richardson National Cemetery in Anchorage, Alaska.

In TR’s own words, his fourth child, Ethel, was “a jolly naughty whacky baby too attractive for anything, and thoroughly able to hold her own in the world.”

Ethel wasn’t too attractive to rough-house with her siblings, though. As Edward J. Renehan Jr. writes in his book The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War, Ethel was a “wild tomboy” who spent her early years “swinging from trees with her brothers, running relay races, rowing on Oyster Bay, and riding a succession of favorite horses.”

But as she got older, Ethel became the reserved, responsible daughter that her impulsive older sister, Alice, never was. While TR called Alice his “liability child,” he praised Ethel as the “asset child.” She stood beside her mother on White House receiving lines. She taught Sunday School to less fortunate children.

In 1914, World War I gave Ethel the opportunity to devote herself to volunteer work full-time. She had just married surgeon Richard Derby in 1913, and the two both treated wounded soldiers at the American Ambulance Hospital in France, years before the United States officially entered the fray.

Much like her grandfather, Thee, Ethel was committed to humanitarianism. After the war, she supported a number of causes, many of which were based in or around Oyster Bay, where she lived with her husband and children.

She volunteered for the Red Cross, and pushed for affordable housing for African Americans in the area. She was an active member of both her church and the local nursing service, and she also became a trustee of New York’s American Museum of Natural History—an institution her grandfather had helped found.

Though Ethel pursued her own charitable passions, she still made time to further her father’s conservation efforts and solidify the Roosevelt legacy in Oyster Bay. And we can thank Ethel for the preservation of Sagamore Hill, too. She helped establish the house as a National Historic Site after her mother died there in 1948.

Ethel lived in Oyster Bay until her death in 1977 at age 86. She’s buried in Youngs Memorial Cemetery.

While all the Roosevelt children treated the White House as their playground in one way or another, a few of Archibald’s antics were especially memorable. It was Little Archie who smuggled a Christmas tree into the White House in 1902, and his Shetland pony, Algonquin, reportedly rode the White House elevator to visit him while he was recovering from the measles the following year.

Archie, TR’s second youngest son, had inherited his father’s sense of adventure and uncanny lack of fear. His younger brother, Quentin, was his sidekick in the White House and beyond.

As Morris wrote in Colonel Roosevelt, the two brothers were “as different as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.” Quentin was “easygoing and uncompetitive,” whereas TR’s aide called Archie “the pugnacious member” of the family. “He takes up the cudgel at every chance,” the aide wrote.

Archie’s favorite companion may have been Quentin, but his personality mirrored his older brother Ted Jr.’s. In many ways, so did his career. Like Ted, Archie worked for a carpet company after graduating Harvard, and was wounded in France during World War I.

After the war, Archie spent a few years in the oil industry before founding his own investment firm. His success kept his wife, Grace, and their four children from feeling the worst of the Great Depression.

But Archie abandoned the comfort of his office to join the American effort in World War II. He fought in New Guinea, and suffered wounds to the same arm and leg that had been shattered in World War I. Though Archie survived the war, he never completely recovered. He had always been politically conservative, but his post-war years were characterized by paranoia and conspiracy theories about communism.

He eventually retired to Florida, where he died in 1979 after a stroke. Archie was 85 years old. During his last days, at least, it seems like the ravages of war fell away, and he returned instead to happy memories of his boyhood in New York.

“I’m going to Sagamore Hill,” he kept repeating.

And, finally, we have Alice—or, as she was known in D.C., The Other Washington Monument.

In the end, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, whom we covered at length in a previous episode, outlived all of her half-siblings. She was TR’s oldest and arguably wildest child, the only one from his first marriage. She died in 1980 at age 96, and she’s buried in Washington, D.C., with her daughter, Paulina.

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another bonus episode of History Vs.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Ellen Gutoskey, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. Is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER